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Will Consumers Swallow a Greener Apple?

By Kimberly Hill MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Aug 27, 2008 4:00 AM PT

Greenpeace certainly ranks as the highest-profile environmental group to take on Apple, the hip kid on the computer block. The organization is not Apple's only environmental adversary, though, and certainly not it's only worry in a marketplace rife with green claims and green concerns. In fact, the company has moved its "Environment" page up to the top-level navigation of its Web site, right alongside its "Hot News" and "Job Opportunities" pages.

Will Consumers Swallow a Greener Apple?

"It's important for Apple to reinforce its brand, which is seen as leading-edge in all aspects. That includes green issues," Charles Golvin, principal analyst with Forrester Research, told MacNewsWorld. Although specific concerns -- energy efficiency, for example, or e-waste recycling -- may get attention, it's the brand that matters to a company that has staked its reputation on, well, reputation.

Telling the Story

In May of last year, Steve Jobs rolled out a carefully packaged version of the company's environmental story, called "A Greener Apple." Many observers have noted the connection between that launch and Greenpeace's "Green My Apple" campaign, which urged customers to write to Jobs personally and exhort him to clean up the company's act.

Whether or not it was a cause-and-effect relationship, Apple and its competitors certainly had been taking a black eye over newsreel footage of mountains of toxic e-waste dumped in developing countries and labor groups protesting processes that exposed their members to hazardous chemicals during the manufacture of personal electronics.

The timeline that accompanies the Greener Apple material dates the company's environmental efforts to 1990, when it released its first formal environmental policy. Since then, claims Apple, it has been ahead of many curves: the push to remove lead from batteries, elimination of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) in packaging, and the establishment of product take-back programs, for example.

In his original Greener Apple presentation, Jobs interestingly apologized to the public for not providing information on the company's environmental track record sooner. He also set dates for several substantial goals -- perhaps most notably, the entire elimination of PVCs in Apple products by the end of 2008. In the push toward several milestones, the company appears to be ahead of a number of competitors, HP and Dell in particular.

Caution: Phthalates Ahead

The Greener Apple road got bumpier, though, when the environmental watchdog Center for Environmental Health (CEH) filed suit against the company under a California law prohibiting high levels a group of chemicals called "phthalates" in consumer products.

The new darling of Apple's lineup, the iPhone, had illegal levels of phthalates in its headphone cords, asserted CEH. That action is still in process, CEH communications director Charles Margulis told MacNewsWorld, although to his knowledge, his organization has not tested the headphone cords of the second-generation iPhones.

It deserves mention that through independent lab testing, CEH has found phthalates in the headphone cords of some other prominent makers of phone accessories, most notably, Plantronics.

Due to its high profile, Apple is a better target than the others for the organization's actions, said Golvin.

"Anybody whose goal is in some way to raise awareness," he noted, will almost certainly continue to pursue Apple rather than those competitors who, although they may sell more devices, don't get the same level of press attention.

Perception Is Everything

CEH and organizations like it assert that Apple could eliminate issues such as phthalates completely, citing the fact that other manufacturers have done so with no observable adverse effect on their products.

"These headphone cords can pose a hazard to consumers, and may be especially harmful to pregnant women and young children," said Caroline Cox, research director for CEH. "There is no reason to have these toxic chemicals hanging around our necks."

Statements like these are making waves that reach far outside California, where CEH primarily operates. The organization also has sounded alarms about the safety of items such as baby bibs and children's lunchboxes. Any glance at a catalog targeted to the moms of those kids will demonstrate that "PVC-free" has become one of the watchwords for this year's back-to-school shopping.

Of Mouths and Money

Still, the balance between what consumers say they want and what they're willing to pay is difficult to strike. That, according to Golvin, is the real dilemma at the crux of personal electronics companies' struggles with their green policies.

"Our research has shown that consumers express interest in green products -- they want that kind of halo," he said, "but, by and large, they are not willing to pay for it."

The resistance to paying more for products that themselves are greener -- or whose makers employ greener practices -- is even more pronounced in the current challenging economic times, Golvin added.

Apple must add that to its already difficult circumstance of being perceived as the premium brand, Golvin explained. The question is not so much whether the marketplace wants a greener Apple -- but whether consumers are willing to, ahem, swallow it.

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